Call the New York Red Bulls the club where coaches go to have their careers tarnished.
The label applies once again after Bruce Arena became the latest high-profile coach to be unsuccessful at trying to transform the team known formerly as the MetroStars from league laughingstock to championship contender.
Carlos Queiroz, Carlos Alberto Parreira, Bora Milutinovic and Bob Bradley are some of the most accomplished coaches in American and international soccer, and not a single one of these coaches ever won a playoff series with the MetroStars. Neither did Arena, which is why he was given the boot.
"With the amount of resources that we at Red Bull have committed to the franchise and soccer in North America, our expectations are high, and we want to challenge for a championship every year," Red Bulls managing director Marc de Grandpre said. "I do believe that we made progress this season, but it was not where we wanted to be."
De Grandpre insisted that the decision was solely his and that he received no feedback from the team's players about Arena's fate. If he had, de Grandpre's decision might have been made even easier. According to team insiders speaking on condition of anonymity, what few outside the Red Bulls knew was that Arena's relationship with his players had soured throughout the year to the point that some veterans weren't speaking to him and many were relieved when told on Monday that Arena would not be returning.
How did Arena get to this point? How could the most successful coach in American soccer history lose the team? It could have had something to do with Arena's hasty transition from his previous job as U.S. national team coach to the Red Bulls. He spent eight years as the U.S. coach, a role far different from that of a club coach. That time period was also more than twice as long as his three-year tenure as head coach of D.C. United, the only professional club head coaching job Arena ever held before joining the Red Bulls in 2006.
Maybe, just maybe, Arena forgot how to deal with a team on a daily basis. As a national team coach, he dealt with players for a few days at a time, or a few weeks at the World Cup. With job security never much of an issue, Arena was free to treat players and staff how he saw fit, and over time that treatment grew increasingly indifferent.
Rather than take time off after being let go by the U.S. national team, Arena jumped right into the Red Bulls job, and it became obvious from the start that Arena's approach to handling players and staff was going to get worse before it got better. His coaching style gradually morphed into a sort of "Emperor's New Clothes" situation. People realized something was wrong but everyone was afraid to say so publicly.
One player who wasn't afraid to let his unhappiness with Arena's coaching style be known was midfielder Claudio Reyna, the man Arena signed to the Red Bulls to be his captain. Arena was Reyna's college coach almost two decades ago and Reyna served as captain of the national team during Arena's tenure, so Reyna figured to be the right player to help Arena guide the team.
It didn't quite work out that way. According to sources within the team and close to Reyna, their relationship frayed quickly and eventually dissolved to the point that they didn't speak for weeks. Goalkeeper Ronald Waterreus also had issues with Arena, but it was Reyna's clashes with the coach that left the team torn between younger players who weren't in a hurry to turn against Arena and veterans who eventually just tuned him out.
De Grandpre insists that feedback from players played no part in his decision to let Arena go, but how could it not? He would have to have been pretty oblivious to have no idea what was going on, and too many players were unhappy for at least one of them not to take the walk to de Grandpre's office.
"There was no conversation with players," de Grandpre said. "This was my decision alone, and that was it. I would never have talked to players about this."
Whether de Grandpre was aware of the team dissension or not, he still had reason enough to be unhappy with Arena's job. Arena made some quality additions in Juan Pablo Angel, Dane Richards and Dave van den Bergh, but he also signed the injury-prone Reyna to a two-year, $2.5 million contract. He traded away quality young defenders Todd Dunivant and Marvell Wynne without getting much in return, and when the team desperately needed defenders, Arena responded by signing yet another forward in Francis Doe.
These mistakes, coupled with some key injuries, helped turn the Red Bulls into a model of inconsistency for most of the season. The team did improve from 2006, and you could argue that Arena's moves have helped set up the Red Bulls for a productive offseason, but perhaps Arena made the mistake of believing his future with the team was secure. He must have forgotten that if there was one company that wouldn't hesitate to bite the bullet on the $1.2 million left on his contract, it's Red Bull.
The most interesting statement made by de Grandpre on Monday was that he didn't make the final decision to dismiss Arena until after their final meeting on Monday morning. According to de Grandpre, he didn't enter the meeting with his decision already made.
"No, I was open-minded," de Grandpre said. "I had some clear points I wanted to get across, and we communicated. It was very amicable and respectable and a respectful conversation."
As for whether Arena could have kept his job under different circumstances, de Grandpre answered, "If we agreed to our common vision, potentially."
We will never know what the final differences were between Arena and de Grandpre. When reached on Monday, Arena declined to comment. De Grandpre said Arena had signed a confidentiality agreement, which probably will prevent Arena from ever going into detail about his departure from the Red Bulls.
Now Arena will have time to reflect on his time with the Red Bulls and take the break from coaching he should have taken after the 2006 World Cup. If the history of former Red Bulls coaches is any indication, Arena should be able to bounce back. That's if he still wants to be a head coach.
Ives Galarcep covers MLS for ESPNsoccernet. He is a writer and columnist for the Herald News (N.J.) and writes a blog, Soccer By Ives. He can be reached at Ivespn79@aol.com.